Donald Trump’s obsession with conspiracy theories took a new turn last night, when the president-elect tweeted that he was in fact the real winner of the popular vote in this month’s presidential election “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He claimed that there is ample evidence of such voter fraud taking place but that the media refuses to report on it.
Trump’s allegation that there were millions of illegal votes cast in the election was quickly and easily debunked.
His latest statement, while wildly untrue, is unsurprising, considering his history of lying about practically everything and his need to respond to every slight, particularly from those who note that he lost the popular vote by over 2 million votes.
Trump also knows that by attacking the media, he can instill the idea among his supporters and others that biased news outlets once again failed to report the facts about the election and therefore are not to be trusted.
Like many of Trump’s bogus allegations, this one didn’t come out of thin air. Instead it is the product of a steady stream of lies from the fringes of the far Right.
Even before the election, Trump attempted to set the stage for allegations of massive voter fraud by charging that “illegal immigrants are voting all over the country.” This claim echoed years of unfounded conjecture by those hoping to clamp down on voting rights and demonize immigrants in the process.
Trump’s most recent false claim also originated from far-right activists working to restrict the right to vote. The allegation was rooted in just two tweets sent by a conservative activist named Gregg Phillips, which were quickly picked up by conservative media before making it to the Twitter account of the president-elect.
Phillips is a longtime conservative activist who, according to his LinkedIn profile, has worked for the Mississippi and Alabama Republican parties and a pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC, and currently sits on the board of directors of True the Vote, a group ostensibly created to root out the massive voter fraud that it has been so far unable to find. On his Twitter profile, Phillips says he is the founder of VoteStand, an app for reporting suspected voter fraud that True the Vote promoted heavily before this month’s election, despite its previous failure to uncover any evidence of widespread fraud.
When Phillips tweeted just three days after the election that he had determined that the “number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million,” far-right media outlets seized on his statement, for which he offered no supporting evidence, and began promoting the claim as if it were a verifiable truth. American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer ran with the story, as did the bizarre conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars. Star InfoWars commentator and Trump ally Alex Jones said on his radio show that it was an “uncontrovertible [sic] fact that 3 million illegals voted”:
Trump, a fan of Jones and a past guest on his show, has frequently promoted InfoWars’ misinformation and championed the phony news site, along with its fellow alternate-reality news sources Breitbart and the National Enquirer.
When two tweets from a GOP activist became a major story on InfoWars and other fringe outlets, it was only a matter of time before the phony news made its way to the president-elect.
Neither Trump nor True the Vote has offered any evidence to back up Phillips’ claim. In a statement, True the Vote said that it “absolutely supports President-elect Trump’s recent comment about the impact of illegal voting,” while claiming that it will take “several months” to compile the data that it believes will substantiate the president-elect’s statements. Phillips, for his part, tweeted that Trump “is accurate” and “millions of illegal votes were cast” but “Obamas [sic] DOJ covered it up.”
Trump may know from experience that allegations of widespread voter fraud don’t need to be bolstered by evidence in order to have their intended effect.
Phony claims about voter fraud have bene used in several states to justify GOP-led efforts to enact stringent voting laws that disproportionately affect minority and young voters—demographics that, not coincidentally, tend to back Democratic candidates. These efforts are soon to have an even stronger national platform: Congressional Republicans are set to introduce legislation to curb voting access and potential Trump administration officials, including attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and transition team figure Kris Kobach, have signaled their hostility to voting rights.
Trump’s voter fraud Twitter storm last night not only showed the power of conservative disinformation, it sent a dangerous signal about his future administration’s attitude toward voting rights.